BEST HIP-HOP The Best Hip-Hop on Bandcamp, November 2023 By Phillip Mlynar · November 28, 2023

November’s selection of the best new hip-hop releases to hit Bandcamp includes a concept album that revisits the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, a project inspired by the manga Vagabond, and an exploration into the way humankind cannot be trusted to use new technology for good. We also check out the latest installment in a series that repurposes the iconic KPM library music archives.

Aesop Rock
Integrated Tech Solutions

Centered around a shadowy fictional company that peddles algorithm-based lifestyle apps, Aesop Rock‘s Integrated Tech Solutions finds the MC casting a smart, cynical eye over the modern world. Soundtracked by a series of mostly self-produced beats that swing between the industrial and the rustic, Aesop Rock zeroes in on human misuse of new technology, tracing it back to cavemen days on “Mindful Solutionism” before running through a list of tainted tech throughout the centuries that followed. Crucial moments along this conceptual journey include the Animal Farm-esque “Infinity Fill Goose Down”; Rob Sonic gracing the guitar-strewn, EPMD-referencing “Forward Compatibility Engine”; and the calming naturalistic charm of “By The River,” which suggests that maybe nature can win out after all, despite ITS’s nefarious agenda.

Blockhead
The Aux

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP

Blockhead‘s The Aux pairs the New York producer’s bluesy production with an expansive roster of MCs headed up by Quelle Chris, The Koreatown Oddity, and billy woods. (The latter also assumes executive producer duties for the 15-track release.) “Time’s short, I never took time off/ Money’s long, it’s a heap of shit I never bought/ I sleep on the floor, I’m the best but really no better than y’all/ Everything you need to know about America’s inside any 99 cents store,” raps woods over the dusky flute lines and downy keys on “AAU Tournaments,” before getting both critical and spiritual: “They was talking something about God’s law/ I was like, which God?” Key moments here include RXK Nephew passing through the honeyed “Pink Lemonade,” Brian Ennals searching for salvation amid a tumultuous world on “Sad Vampire,” and veterans Casual and Breezly Brewin joining forces to rattle off taut bars over the rumbling guitar-spiked “Hater Porn.” And the fantastically-titled closing cut “Now That’s What I Call A Posse Cut Vol. 56” brings together the quartet of Bruiser Wolf, Danny Brown, woods, and Despot to deliver a textbook example of the enduring power of the kind of cut that gives the track its name.

Bohemian Grove (Alaska and Ray West)
Satanic Panic

Satanic Panic revisits the moral panic of the ‘80s, when heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons (among other things) were blamed for influencing kids to indulge in satanic rituals. Updating the theory to apply to a contemporary world fueled by modern tech, New York rapper Alaska and Bronx beatmaster Ray West conjure a nervy, clandestine atmosphere by lacing noir-y production with crackly, muffled samples from TV news. On “Ignorance Is Bliss,” Alaska explores the era’s “divide and conquer” tactics over somber piano. “A-yo, we’re struck by the manufactured horror/ That’s the way the panic spreads, the function of the martyrs/ Punch drunk from pummeling, how much can you stomach?/ Yo, they’ll throw it in a stump speech and promise they’ll be punishments,” raps the MC before venting his anger at those “working for the Stasi now, for retweets and extra likes.” Then comes the crux: “I know it’s not a novel idea/ But you’re easier to grift when you’re driven by fear.” Bonus instrumentals of all nine tracks are also included with the release, which climaxes with the Schoolly D-level “SP 12 Jump Off.”

Danny Brown
Quaranta

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

“This rap shit done saved my life/ And fucked it up at the same time,” confesses Danny Brown on the shuffling, guitar-laced opening track on the latest album from the wildly charismatic Detroit MC. Brown wrote the songs here after spending time in rehab, and every track exudes a natural sense of catharsis. “That pain in my heart, I can’t hide a lot of trauma inside, you can see it in my eyes/ Could have ended in seconds/ There’s time on my side/ Show must go on/ Buy the ticket, take the ride,” raps Brown, grappling with the ways that committing to an art form can cause internal turmoil and hurt. Bolstering the emotional impact of Brown’s words, the album boasts an impressive roster of producers, with Paul White bringing ’80s synth sadness to “Down Wit It,” Kassa Overall giving “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation” a jazzy gusto, and Quelle Chris teaming up with Chris Keys to craft a warped, spacey backdrop for “Ain’t My Concern,” on which Brown engages in self-reflection. “Play another song, let the music talk for us,” Brown raps on the album’s send off, “Bass Jam,” recalling memories linked to songs that can “have us shedding tears ‘fore we get to the chorus.”

Elaquent
Rediscovery

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Vinyl Box Set

The cover for the latest LP from Elaquent features a photograph of the rapper at age eight, clutching a vintage Gameboy console, and the music within exudes an appropriately serene and nostalgic aura. “Somebody said I need to make something to hit the club to/ But honestly I’d rather make something that touch the soul/ An OG said I’m someone his kids should probably look up to/ And I ain’t where I wanna be yet, but I don’t fold,” raps guest MC Dom Chronicles over cherubic keys and pitter-patter percussion on “Small Victories,” before offering a verse that reflects the humble heart of the release: “Small wins add up, you just gotta have trust/ Small things matter, you don’t have much.” Elsewhere, Skyzoo pays tribute to the influence of American race relations author Richard Wright on “Spirit Of Richard Right,” Chester Watson delivers trademark abstractions over a backdrop of levitating keys on “Away,” and Brainorchestra embraces the bass-propelled deep funk of “Lobster Spaghetti.” And album closer “I Made You A Song” showcases Elaquent’s talent for crafting instrumentals that radiate a quiet hopefulness and convey a soothing melodic charm.

H31R
HeadSpace

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

“How you moving backwards?” asks maasaai on the second track of the Brooklyn-based MC’s latest collaboration with electro-influenced New Jersey beatmaker JWords. Building on the momentum of 2020’s full-length ve​·​loc​·​i​·​ty, the duo’s latest for Big Dada backs maasaai’s meditative poetics with synth-centric production that manages to seem both luminous and noir-ish at the same time. “Who are you when the lights go down?/ And who are you in the times when no one’s around you in the room?/ If you removed the walls that surround you, how do you move?” asks maassai on the two-steppy “Shadow Self,” exploring the concept of self and the notion of of duality that appear across the 14-song album. Chicago’s Semiratruth praises self-reliance on the defiant “Glass Ceiling,” and Quelle Chris flows nimbly over the bubbling bass and metallic hi-hats that power penultimate moment “Down Down Bb.”

Noveliss
Vagabond

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Inspired by Takehiko Inoue’s revered manga Vagabond, the latest release from Detroit MC and Clear Soul Forces member Noveliss offers a mix of spiritually-inclined soul-searching and earnest self-reflection. “Thirty-odd years/ Trying to understand where my mind went/ Confide in a touch of Zen/ Guide the pen to enlightenment,” raps Noveliss on opener “The Garden,” flowing crisply over crunching kicks and a tranquil keys loop. The track builds to a damning observation: “How many times we’ve seen machines destroy man in the ending, right?” Driving home the concept behind the seven-song release, tracks are fronted by philosophical quotes taken directly from the manga, complete with a contemplation on the true meaning of victory on closing cut “Dragons,” with Noveliss seeking out a state of “freedom from moral categories” and vowing to “do for others.”

Phiik, Lungs & NoFace
Planet X

Planet X presents the triple threat of New York City warp-speed spitters Phiik and Lungs alongside the eerie sci-fi beat stylings of Noface. Opening scene-setter “B.Q.E” employs a vocal sample swaddled in static that casts the MCs as “two men tumbling helplessly through time, their lives at the mercy at the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow,” before rumbling bass tones provoke Lungs to brainstorm threats while bumping Etta James, and Phiik dreams to a backdrop of exploding stars. Throughout the album, Noface delivers a series of frequently drum-less backdrops that rely on quivering vintage synths and skewed spot effects to provide a sense of rhythm; it’s a deft production tactic that amplifies the relentless intensity of the two MCs’ verbals.  Additional support comes courtesy of Elric, who blesses the kooky boom-bap of “3Pack,” and DOOF, who closes out the weeping soul of “Sad Eyes.”

DJ Shadow
Action Adventure

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, 2 x Vinyl LP

At the outset of recording Action Adventure, DJ Shadow felt a calling to return to his instrumental hip-hop roots rather than pack a project with a litany of guests. As the California-based producer explains in the album’s liner notes, “I didn’t want to compromise or write music to give someone else a runway.” The resulting 14-track release pays testament to Shadow’s instinct, with the first half suggesting the producer discovered a stash of unreleased synth-centric ’80s LaserDisc soundtracks that were waiting to be repurposed into modern hip-hop compositions, all of them underscored by jittering, metallic drum patterns. Mid-album highlight “You Played Me” is the project’s sole vocal cut and, with its ’80s club pomp, it feels like a lost cousin to Sweet G’s old-school rap cut “Games People Play.” The album’s closing section spotlights Shadow’s sophisticated chops as an arranger, as texture and tone take the place of percussive assaults. The poignant “Fleeting Youth (An Audible Life)” discards the drums entirely, letting a delicate piano take center stage before the song’s hopeful melody is extinguished and replaced by the remnants of a lost radio broadcast, suggesting the bittersweet feeling of a breakthrough becoming a breakdown.

Stro Elliot
La Villa

La Villa is another installment in the excellent KPM Crate Diggers series, in which hip-hop producers are given access to the the iconic library music label’s deep vault, and tasks them with sampling and reinterpreting any grooves, loops, and spot effects that catch their ear. Commandeering the fourth release in this series is Los Angeles-based producer Stro Elliot, who also holds down a role in live hip-hop ensemble The Roots. There’s a blissful feel to much of the jazz-centered La Villa, with Elliot favoring honeyed flute, vibraphone, and keyboard melodies that at times have a tropicália-inflected lilt, while robust drums add a satisfying crunch. “Monday’s Generation” sets an upbeat tone, with a taut drum pattern underscoring what sounds like the voices of a children’s playground choir, along with samples from KPM musician Keith Mansfield for extra melodic embellishment. Elsewhere, “Bamboo” is constructed from fragments of French composer and pianist Oswald d’Andréa’s music, while closer “Dream Factory” unearths the easy-listening work of English arranger Syd Dale. It’d another smart addition to a series that pays respect to the past while charting contemporary sonic terrain.

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